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The High Plains

Activity 1

The Question of Ferret Reintroduction on the Public Lands
In this role-play activity, students consider the question of whether the black-footed ferret should be reintroduced on public lands. By presenting the positions of various interest groups to a mock town council meeting and working together to resolve conflicts over the proposed reintroduction of an endangered species, students are involved in resolving competing interests and turning a potential conflict into a collaborative effort.

Drawing of black-tailed prairie dogThe Prairie Dog. Black-tailed prairie dogs are the most abundant of the five species of prairie dogs found in North America. They live in colonies or "towns," which can be as small as one-half hectare or as large as 400 hectares. They construct up to 20 burrow entrances per hectare, each leading to tunnels of up to 2 m deep.

The Scenario
In a hypothetical situation, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has approached the Smithdale Town Council regarding a proposal to reintroduce the black-footed ferret onto public lands near the town of Smithdale. The public lands identified for reintroduction fall within the ferret's historic range.

Drawing of burrowing owl in prairie dog burrowBurrowing Owl. The burrowing owl often lives in prairie dog burrows. They eat mostly insects, like beetles and grasshoppers, and small mammals such as mice and ground squirrels.

Concerned about the possible impact on adjacent private landowners and people who use the public lands, the BLM has asked the Smithdale Town Council to comment on the proposal. The council has scheduled a hearing to engage citizens in a public dialogue about the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret into its former range near the town of Smithdale.

Give each student a copy of the background passage. After students have read the passage, have them form groups of three to five students and give each group a photocopied "position card." Each group will represent one of the various community interests. Ask students to prepare an argument for their position by researching how communities have handled the reintroduction of other species, such as the reintroduction of the gray wolf in the West or the red wolf in the East. Students also should find out what issues people are most concerned about and choose a spokesperson to present their argument.

Drawing of typical bird attracted to prairie dog townsBirds. Birds are attracted to prairie dog towns because the insects they eat are easily seen in the grazed patches. Plovers, killdeers, prairie-horned larks, and meadowlarks can be found, as well as predatory birds such as ferruginous hawks, red-tailed hawks, and sparrow hawks.

The "town council" can be composed of students (who also research the issue), teachers, or parent volunteers. Students may also want to elect their town council. For the "public meeting," have the Smithdale Town Council sit in front of the class. Give each group five minutes to state its position to the council, which can then question the spokesperson. Once every group has expressed its opinion, lead students in a general discussion about the issue.

Black-Footed Ferret. The prairie dog is tied to one of the most endangered species in the world, the black-footed ferret. The only ferret native to North America, black-footed ferrets are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae), a distinction shared with weasels, martens, fishers, otters, minks, wolverines, and skunks. Drawing of black-footed ferret

Collaborative Problem Solving
Make sure students understand that each group has a valid concern, and that there is no "right" or "wrong" in this situation. After the public meeting, have students assemble in groups made up of one person from each of the interest groups, with the exception of the town council. Challenge each of these new groups to collaboratively come up with a recommendation on how the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret could be managed to have the least impact on the local community, while still allowing for the reintroduction of this species.

Drawing of black-tailed prairie dog in its burrow

For Discussion
During their discussion, encourage students to consider the following questions:

  • Would the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret improve the overall health of the ecosystem, and, if so, how?
  • What are some things about the impacts to local communities that would be useful to know? Examples could include the economic impact to adjacent private landowners (normally, the BLM would not reintroduce the species on private lands although the species might naturally expand there), energy and mining companies, hunters and anglers, and cattle ranchers.
  • What is the best use of this public land for human interests? For biological diversity? What solution could satisfy the needs of both?
  • How do the values of the various interests differ?
  • What can you give up or alter about your position?
  • What if you knew the economic benefits and costs of some of the choices? Would that make a difference in your decision?
  • How does the fact that the black-footed ferret was historically a part of the ecosystem affect your recommendation?
Drawing of a badger, another High Plains residentBadger. The badger, like the black-footed ferret, is a member of the weasel family (Mustelidae). It resides in arid grasslands and sagebrush country, and lives in burrows.

Each of the multi-interest groups should then present its solution, and the Smithdale Town Council can then vote on what to recommend to the BLM about the proposal. After the vote, discuss the pros and cons of the suggested solutions. Identify and list the benefits (if any) and the costs and liabilities (if any) resulting from the council's decision. Include effects on people, plants, and animals.

To extend learning further, follow the same procedure for a similar resource issue currently under debate in your community. Contact constituent groups representing diverse opinions and ask them for prepared statements (500-1,000 words) summarizing their positions on the issue, or invite them to a debate in your classroom and continue to research the issue so that students can ask relevant questions.

Bison. Millions of bison once roamed the plains. They still can be found in isolated areas. Studies have indicated that bison and pronghorn prefer to feed in prairie dog towns because the forbs and herbaceous plants there taste good. And luckily, these plants are good for them also, having a higher nitrogen level and greater digestibility.
Drawing of bison, which once were found by the millions and now are found in isolated areas of the High Plains

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is considered the most endangered mammal in the country, and, in fact, by 1980 was believed to be extinct. In the late 1800's, however, an estimated 5.6 million of these animals were found throughout the Great Plains. As the prairie was settled, large stretches of native grassland were plowed into farmland, eliminating prairie dog habitats. This had a devastating effect on ferrets, whose lives revolve around prairie dog towns. Ferrets eat prairie dogs and live in prairie dog burrows, hunting mostly at night.

In many areas, poisoning programs wiped out large colonies of prairie dogs, leaving only small, isolated dog towns. As prairie dog numbers declined, black-footed ferrets nearly disappeared. By the 1950's, very few ferrets were left. The ferret was officially listed as an endangered species in 1967. By 1980, the species was thought to be extinct. However, in 1981 a small ferret population was discovered near Meeteetse, Wyoming. While this population peaked at about 130 animals in 1984, by 1986 canine distemper (thought to be transmitted through domestic animals but also carried by wild animals) had reduced it to 18 known animals. Worried about the ferret's ability to survive, biologists captured these few remaining animals and launched a successful captive-breeding program. The captive population has now increased to more than 400, and the animals have been reintroduced into Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Arizona.

Drawing of prairie rattlesnake among grasses
Other Animals. The prairie rattlesnake warns larger animals of its presence through its distinctive rattle, even though the snake itself is deaf. Its camouflaged pattern helps the prairie rattlesnake blend in with its surroundings. White-tailed deer are reclusive and usually found in the valleys along creeks and streams, while mule deer are often found on the badlands and open plains. Both types of deer can be found in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming. Elk can also be found in the Black Hills. Other animals readily seen in the High Plains are the red fox, coyote, golden eagle, cottontail rabbits, and jackrabbits.

The goal of the program is to establish 10 free-ranging populations of black-footed ferrets, spread over the widest possible area within their former range. Each of these populations is to have 30 or more breeding adults. It is hoped that 1,500 free-ranging black-footed ferrets will live in the wild by the year 2010.

Position Cards

Private Landowners

Private landowners fear that activities on their own lands might be restricted. They want:

  • to cooperatively decide the number of and distribution of prairie dogs (and correspondingly ferrets) that may occur on privately owned and leased public-domain lands.
  • assurance that they will not be forced to place benefits to black-footed ferrets ahead of economic gain and/or stability.
  • to continue operations and activities associated with their lands without fear of problems that could develop from the potential or actual accidental killing or displacement of an endangered species.


Soil. Plants require soil for support and growth, their roots extracting nutrients and water stored in the soil. Microorganisms and animals live and burrow in it. The soil takes in and holds nitrogen and moisture from the atmosphere.Drawing of soil and plant roots, which extract nutrients and water


Energy and Mining Companies

Energy and mining companies fear that the animals will interfere with their ability to work in the area and put them in violation of the Endangered Species Act. They want:

  • assurance that accidental killing or displacement of a black-footed ferret while conducting approved operations will not be in violation of the Endangered Species Act and its penalty provisions.
  • clearly established provisions for new development and exploration, which will aid them in avoiding impacts to black-footed ferrets and their habitat.
  • an opportunity to become a major participant in a program that is likely to receive nationwide attention and public interest.


Hunters fear that their legal rights to hunt in the area will be curtailed or eliminated. They want:

  • access to hunt for deer, antelope, sage grouse, and small game except in the actual vicinity of release cages during the release phase of reintroduction (one to five years).
  • to be able to shoot prairie dogs, except in prairie dog towns where black-footed ferrets are in release cages or are establishing a new population (one to five years) and may suffer from a reduction in the prairie dogs, the ferrets' primary prey.
  • assurance that accidentally harming or killing a black-footed ferret will not result in prosecution if it is properly reported.

Wildlife Biologists

Wildlife biologists would like to see the black-footed ferret restored to the wild so eventually it can be taken off the Endangered Species List. They want:

  • to build self-sustaining populations of ferrets at several locations so that captive-breeding facilities are no longer needed for reintroduction.
  • to encourage the widest possible distribution of reintroduced black-footed ferret populations.
  • to minimize the potential impact of canine distemper and other diseases common to carnivores to both ferrets and their primary prey, prairie dogs, by avoiding areas where the potential for this disease is greatest.
  • to design the black-footed ferret management program to be compatible with existing ranch, livestock, and mineral-extraction operations so that neither lifestyles nor income potential are negatively affected.
  • areas of at least 10,000 acres for each reintroduced ferret population that are relatively free of diseases, particularly canine distemper and plague, that could wipe out an entire colony.
Drawing of leafy spurge, a non-native invasive weed

Leafy spurge is not a native plant. Although it is pretty, it is an aggressive invader and has caused much economic damage throughout the West. Its extensive root system can reach 6 m underground, making it difficult to control.



Ranchers are concerned that livestock grazing will be restricted. They want:

  • to continue operations and activities associated with their private lands or leased public lands without fear of problems that could develop from the potential or actual accidental killing or displacement of an endangered species.
  • assurance that prairie dogs, which are the black-footed ferret's primary prey, do not compete with livestock for the available forage (that is, that benefits to black-footed ferrets will not be placed ahead of ranchers' economic livelihoods).
  • acknowledgment that grazing is compatible with the maintenance of prairie dogs.

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Last updated: 11-13-2009